The train, the fog, and the Bruckner: Chicago, part 2

Distinguished as fuck

Distinguished as fuck

Now that you’ve already been bored to tears by part 1 of my Chicago adventure, let’s get on to the part where there was actually music involved. As I said previously, in spite of my unflinching love of Bruckner’s music, I had literally never heard any of it live before, which is kinda insane when I really think about it. Truth is, there is still a relatively decent-sized subset of conductors who either don’t get Bruckner (and therefore avoid programming him) or think his music sucks (and therefore avoid programming him). Even so, it’s a bit surprising I hadn’t run into a live Bruckner performance by accident. Needless to say, considering the fact that I had been waiting, consciously or otherwise, for 15 years since I first discovered the man’s music, my expectations were through the roof, atmosphere, and a good chunk of the galaxy going into last Saturday night.

The concert opened with the Egmont Overture, and it was fine. I was surprised at the lack of power in spots I figured would explode, especially the menacing minor second rumble in the cellos during the first section’s fortissimo outcry. The lack of that extra gear killed the vibe a bit for me, but everything changed during the woodwind chorale that leads to the triumphant conclusion. So THAT’S what one of the best orchestras in the world can do with simple chords: make them so God damn in tune that they ring like church bells being belted with a 3-ton Q-tip. It was awesome. The final section was exciting and majestic and all that shit, but I have to say it got me thinking a bit. Join me for an absolutely pointless digression.

On Beethoven’s birthday a couple weeks back I listened to a shit ton of his music, including what is regarded as one of his worst (if not THE worst) pieces, Wellington’s Victory. I’m not going to attempt to defend the piece and say it’s secretly one of his finest works, because it pretty much, uh, isn’t. But there’s some of it that I think is among Beethoven’s finest writing in a very specific vein, and that is the “I swear to Christ you better be celebrating because we’re going fast and being obscenely harmonically repetitive to drive the point home that we’ve won something!” vein. There are many examples of this in his output, with the final section of Egmont being one and the finale of the Symphony no. 5 (or the end of the Symphony no. 9) being the most famous. You know what though? The “Symphony of Triumph” part 2 of Wellington’s Victory is the best of all of them. Sure, you have to squint your ears a bit to forgive the “God Save the Queen” business, but the bulk of it is Red Bull-injected-into-your-balls exciting. Don’t let anyone tell you Wellington doesn’t have value beyond the comedic, because once you’re clear of the musket fire and cannons and military fanfares of Part 1, you’re left with Beethoven at his most threateningly rejoiceful.

Anyway, back to the concert. The second piece on the program was a work by Bernard Rands called …where the murmurs die…, inspired by a bit from Samuel Beckett. I often maintain that most of the orchestral music written in the last 30 or so years is largely derivative, an amalgamation of what came before it. This, of course, is largely a product of necessity, especially if you’re writing tonal music. The mathematics of sound say it’s all been done, so now it’s just a question of intelligently applying things already done in creative combinations. …where the murmurs die… had a lot of elements of, to my ears, Ravel and Rachmaninov, which is pretty fucking smart if you’d like to hear your music performed. Not surprisingly, Mr. Rands’ music is performed regularly. I found the work and the performance altogether unobjectionable and generally pleasing, but I can’t go much beyond that. It’s always a joy to hear music by human beings who are actually still alive to receive the applause awarded them, yett I don’t know that I can recall a single meaningful detail about the work that spoke to me apart from who it sounded like (see above). This is the great difficulty I suspect most modern composers for orchestra face, and perhaps it’s why most of the best and most interesting new music I hear is for solo or chamber forces or electroacoustic music (shout out to Dave McIntire).  

After the break came the reason for the entire trip. In the pre-concert talk the presenter talked about Bruckner’s Ninth a bit, placed it in its context within the Austro-German symphonic tradition, made a comparison here and there to get the audience a bit more info. Here’s a late-breaking news flash: people feel about different things differently. Placing Bruckner 9 within the lineage of Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms and Mahler is obviously important. Giving the audience an indication that the second movement is a bit like the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth is perhaps helpful. Talking about how he died before he finished it and that there are performing versions that include a finale is certainly worth noting. And yet all of these facts obscure the reality of the work as I see it, which is nothing less than the music which better accompany the final battle between good and evil or else… Bruckner 9 is world-shattering, life-altering shit.

There were a handful of spots in the piece that I anticipated getting a little misty. One of these anticipated spots was NOT the very first note, but that’s what happened. I don’t know if it was simply the excitement of finally hearing Bruckner live or what, but it was crazy. I was teary-eyed all the way through the first climax, which was un-fucking-believable. Any concerns I had about raw, animalistic power were abated in that episode. Christoph Eschenbach’s interpretation was satisfying overall, occasionally a tad slow but the tempo relationships were all solid. He, like many world-class conductors, would likely not be accepted into a conducting workshop via video submission; I don’t even know if I would say there was technique at all, but whatever it was it was effective because the band sounded great. The opening movement had tremendous momentum in spite of the aforementioned slow tempi, and it built with increasing ferocity to the conclusion, which is probably the most apocalyptic bit in the whole thing. The waterworks started up again during the woodwind and brass chorale that precedes the last great climb to the summit, and with good reason: it was fucking terrifying. You could feel the energy in your bones, and when the entire orchestra played the unison ascending line and landed on the tonic, it was such cataclysmic force that I’m pretty sure you could have murdered a hooker in there and no one would have noticed because they were too busy having their faces melted Ark of the Covenant style. It was unreal.

The scherzo was a reprieve from the emotional onslaught, settling comfortably into a hyper-intense war dance that I’m pretty sure I’d like to make my alarm clock tone on days I want to punch the entire world in the dick. The contrast between the thundering scherzo and the lightness of the trio was stellar, and the woodwinds were in top form throughout. I wonder what the members of the audience who were unfamiliar with the Bruckner going in thought about the comparison with the Beethoven 9 scherzo. Hopefully something like “I don’t remember the Beethoven making me physically exhausted.”

In a bit of news that should shock no one at this point, I immediately began crying again at the beginning of the final movement, sighing heavily as the line reached its crest. Thus began the wait for some music loud enough for me to sniffle like I’d been watching Oprah and eating Yoplait on the couch. The performance was supremely beautiful, full of rich colors and incredible warmth, especially from the strings. The music moved effortlessly, building and subsiding with ease as the moments passed. The climax of the movement, and for me the work as a whole, came and with it came not only crying but a really terrible whimper that I hope no one heard. This bit in question (from about the 53:35 mark) reminds me a bit of the Tallis Fantasia, which I’m sure is no coincidence on Vaughan Williams’ part. The sound that came from the strings when they musically appeared was not of this planet. I can still hear the sound in my head. It was viscerally heart-wrenching, without exaggeration the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard in my life. I’m breathing heavy just thinking about it. The rest of the movement is honestly a bit of a blur – I got stuck in time a bit at that moment – but that utterly frightening chord that must have inspired Mahler in his 10th Symphony was unfathomably powerful and the last minute or so of the work was sublime. Even though the horn chipped the final note a bit, the feeling of peace as the music melted away was surreal.

I’ve never listened to a performing version of a fourth movement of Bruckner 9. I know there are a handful of recordings now, but I’ve never cared to hear them. Perhaps I should, but it’s hard to shake the perfection of the three movements that he finished. I honestly can’t even comprehend the work ending any way besides the way it does. I don’t know if I believe in God, and if I do I certainly don’t believe as much as Bruckner did. I wonder if a man as devout as him would have recognized the hand of his Creator in pulling him away from this life and leaving his last testament to the living as that marvelous Adagio. I could talk myself into believing that pretty easily.

One final thing…I’ve never “dedicated” anything to anyone before, and perhaps a blog post with multiple cuss words shouldn’t be dedicated to anyone anyway, but I would be remiss if I didn’t do something, even something as potentially meaningless as dedicating this post, to recognize the memory of Nancy Clauter, who passed away on Christmas Eve. Nancy was my theory teacher in college and was the oboe professor as UK. She was a killer oboist with a range of expression unlike any woodwind player I’ve heard before or since. Above all else though, she was a hell of a good person, so nice and thoughtful and witty and charming. She was good to all of us students, and I know those who were closest to her (her oboe students) will remember her with great fondness. I desperately want to believe that there is a Heaven and it’s populated with the great musicians and artists and athletes and leaders of history. If that wish is somehow true, the oboe roster just got deeper and I think perhaps a performance of Bruckner 9 is in order.

May you rest in peace, Nancy. We’ll miss you.



11 thoughts on “The train, the fog, and the Bruckner: Chicago, part 2

  1. Well, I’m thoroughly jealous! Too far away from Chicago to hear those guys on a regular basis, or even an irregular basis, but the few times I’ve managed to hear the band, it’s been pants-peeingly good. I’m talking about the kind of performance that wakes you up in the middle of the night a year later with the cold sweats.

    But if we’re going to use Uncle Anton to score the final battle, I hope we can at least use the beginning of the last movement of Bruckner 8, too. And also, I want a timpani player who’s hopped up on Red Bull, anger management problems, and cheap trucker speed for that, please.

  2. I know when I am in the presence of great music by my tears. Bach heard in a church usually has that effect on me – also a lot of choral music. What a great gift from the past…

  3. I’ve owned numerous recorded versions of the Ninth (And thanks again for directing me to that recording by Asahina, BTW…) and listened once to one of the performances of the fourth movement. Once was enough. It just didn’t sound like Bruckner. Some of the themes sounded vaguely “Brucknerian,” but their treatment and the movement’s pacing don’t match the rest of the piece, to my ears. I kept feeling that the Ninth had concluded and a new piece was now playing in the disc changer. One whose quotient of the sublime was severely diminished.

  4. Oh man, come to Chicago again and I’ll join you! I’m only two hours away.

  5. Absolutely man. That’d be a blast.

  6. I endorse this comment. Huge props to the email handle MahlerBillYall. This blog was secondarily conceived in the hopes that someday someone else in the world would successfully combine Mahler and Wu-Tang references. SHUT IT DOWN, WE’RE DONE HERE!

  7. Is there a more ominous/Cassandra-esque beginning in all of music? Maybe Dvorak 7 but it would be a distant 2nd. Every time I listen I start listening I involuntary start looking over my shoulder. Something is going down and its not going to be pleasant. This is one of the few pieces where I cant find a favorite recording. I wish I could piece together aspects of Bernstein, Guilini and Jochum (with a little Celibidache and Tintner thrown in). Asahina? I know Asahina has a dedicated following but to me his Bruckner presents more passion than mastery. Dilettante sounds overly harsh but that has been my reaction to whenever I have heard him. In the same boat in not hearing Bruckner live and jealous of your experience.

  8. Great post, Erik.

    In terms of the Finale- Harnoncourt’s recording of the torso includes a separate lecture disc on the Finale with all the material we have in Bruckner’s hand. It’s an amazing document, and gives a great sense of how close Bruckner was to finishing it (answer- closer than Mozart was to finishing the Requiem or Mahler to finishing the 10th). Rattle’s BPO performance last year of the consortium completion is pretty impressive, and the orchestra play like gods in the first three movements, but check out Harnoncourt’s talk

  9. Pingback: I was at a concert: Another heavy 9th symphony | Everything But The Music

  10. Pingback: 10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 2 | Everything But The Music

  11. Pingback: I was at a concert: FINALLY! | Everything But The Music

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